Alleged misuse of health code stirs public concern online

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A resident scans a QR code to register his health status at the entrance of a community in Haidian district, Beijing, June 12, 2022. [Photo/Xinhua]

An incident in which some bank customers claimed their health codes were turned red for non-epidemic-related reasons in Henan province, has sparked widespread public discussion, with some calling for stricter management of the code in the fight of COVID-19.

Since early this month, a number of people have made complaints online or to the media that after arriving in Henan and trying to withdraw their savings from some rural banks, they found that their health codes had turned red despite coming from low-risk areas for COVID-19.

The banks in question had come under fire in recent months for alleged fraudulent activities, prompting many customers to withdraw their savings.

An investigation has been launched into who actually changed the health codes.

The claims and complaints quickly gained momentum online, triggering a huge swell of public reaction. By Saturday, China Daily found some 66 topics about the incident on Sina Weibo, the country's Twitter-like social media platform, with more than 2.1 billion views in total.

Some netizens questioned how certain institutions or authorities were able to tamper with health codes after there had been a clear stipulation from the central government that health codes should only be used for legitimate epidemic prevention.

On Friday, commissions for discipline inspection and supervision in Zhengzhou, capital of Henan, announced that they had launched an investigation into the incident.

Those who violate rules or abuse their power in implementing the Henan provincial health code management regulation for epidemic prevention and control will be held accountable and seriously punished in line with the rules of the Communist Party of China and the law, the announcement said.

The command center for epidemic control in Henan has ordered local authorities to strictly abide by the regulation and strengthen efforts in health code management, underlining that the codes must not be manipulated for non-epidemic means.

The colored health code system has played an important role in fighting COVID-19. A green code guarantees access to public areas, while a red code serves as a warning of infection, possible infection or close contacts, meaning quarantining is required and entry to public venues and transport is denied.

In January last year, the State Council's Joint Prevention and Control Mechanism released principles on the use of health codes and private data protection in a guideline, clearly stating that use of the codes must not be abused and also requiring local governments to provide details on related management.

Since then, several cities and provinces have made and issued their own rules on managing health codes.

According to Caixin, a Chinese business and financial media outlet, some areas, including Hangzhou, Zhejiang province and the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, have clarified that health code management should be coordinated by epidemic control command centers at the provincial or city level, as information collected on infections, possible infections or close contacts involves a number of authorities.

In Henan, the information about people given a red code is mainly provided by the local public security and health departments. The big data bureau is responsible for technical matters around the code, while the command center applies the code, Caixin added.

Considering there are no unified rules on the management of health codes at the national level, some legal professionals have called for a clearer applicable scope of the codes and the stronger protection of personal information as soon as possible.

Fang Xingdong, head of the center for internet and society at the Communication University of Zhejiang, said, "It is urgent and necessary to make standards for the use of health codes to prevent someone or some authorities from abusing their power in applying the anti-epidemic tool."

Guo Bing, an associate professor at Zhejiang Sci-Tech University, suggested Henan's legislative body pay closer attention to personal information protection while drafting its provincial data regulations.

He said that personal data for health codes must be collected and utilized in a more prudent fashion as they involve a great deal of personal information.

"Several laws in our country and the central government's regulations have all required us already to safeguard personal information in using big data to fight the epidemic," he added.

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